Royal Navy medical staff work alongside the NHS in key hospitals across the UK and have recently increased their support in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
And many of their non-medical colleagues have stepped up to help the national effort to contain and defeat Covid-19.
Military doctors, nurses, and medical support staff are well-established in NHS hospitals, working in a wide range of areas.
Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth is just one location where Naval personnel can be found working round the clock.
As part of UK Defence Medical Services, the Joint Hospital Group (South) (JHG(S)) is based at ‘QA’ and has a total of 215 military staff, 79 of whom are members of the Royal Navy.
Naval personnel usually work in the NHS to maintain clinical skills ready for operations and military tasking, but the virus outbreak has brought the front line home to UK hospitals which means staff find themselves fighting the pandemic side-by-side with their civilian counterparts.
Alongside their important daily work in established hospitals, Naval medical staff are unique in that they are also held at high readiness to move and support other military tasking in the UK or overseas as part of the government’s Covid-19 response.
This ability to react quickly and flexibly make Naval personnel particularly valuable to the government as the pandemic develops over the coming months.
Cdr Alister Witt, the Commanding Officer of JHG(S), said: “Normally it’s us sending our people to the front line from the hospital here, but very much at the moment the front line has come to us.
“We’ve had to really get our people onto an operational footing to focus on an operation in the home environment where they’re actually delivering their key clinical skills to help out something that’s a national main effort.”
Leading Naval Nurse Sarah Belcher said: “As a military team we’re doing a lot more hours than we were prior to the Covid outbreak.
“A lot of our external training that we’re required to do as part of military operations has been cancelled as a result of Covid, so many of those hours we’re now spending to try and boost the numbers inside the hospital and the department and support the NHS staff.”
Lt Amy Phelps, a Naval Nurse working in critical care, said: “Knowing that you have the skills and experience needed to contribute to this crisis definitely makes me proud, and proud of the whole team I’m working alongside.”
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Royal Navy helicopters have also been drafted into the national effort against the coronavirus, helping millions of Britons in the West Country.
As part of the Royal Navy’s support to the NHS throughout the UK during the pandemic, Merlin helicopters from RN air station Culdrose are earmarked to act as flying ambulances and transporters, flying supplies and personnel to where they are needed .
The helicopters – designed for submarine-hunting when operating with the Fleet – were put on notice to provide round-the-clock assistance to the NHS and South West Ambulance Services, serving a population of more than 4.5 million people across Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Bristol, Somerset, the Channel Islands and the Isles of Scilly.
Three Merlin Mk2 helicopters and their crews from 820 Naval Air Squadron were initially identified for the task, aided not just by their own engineers and technicians, but the entire support network at the Helston airbase – medics, air traffic controllers, safety and logistics experts.
The military submarine-hunting kit which normally fills the helicopters’ cabins has been stripped out so the Merlins can carry stretchers, passengers and stores over long distances.
“This is very different from our ordinary role, but jobs like this are in our DNA,” said Cdr Chris ‘Grassy’ Knowles, 820’s Commanding Officer.
“We are helping out the nation and the National Health Service during these testing times – it’s a real moment for everyone to pull together.”
Cdr Knowles said efforts had been made to protect crews “and the whole Culdrose family” from the risk of infection, following medical guidelines for isolating patients and decontaminating the helicopters, equipment and uniforms.
Air and ground crews are rostered to work 12-hour shifts to be able to respond to the pandemic, carrying NHS paramedics with patients when required.
“This is why I joined the Royal Navy – helping the country in times of need,” said pilot Lt Nick Jackson-Spence.
It’s the second time in five years the squadron has been called upon to help during a medical emergency – 820’s aircraft supported the UK’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in the winter of 2014-15.
And while the squadron’s helicopters are there to support civilian authorities, Culdrose’s wider Merlin Force continues its usual duties, protecting UK waters and safeguarding the strategic nuclear deterrent as well as lending a helping hand further afield.
For example, 53 sailors from Culdrose’s 1700 Naval Air Squadron, including aircraft handlers, flight deck officers, medical and catering staff, recently left the UK on board primary casualty receiving ship RFA Argus for the Caribbean.
They will work alongside their Royal Fleet Auxiliary colleagues and helicopters from RN air station Yeovilton to supply hurricane and coronavirus support to the UK’s overseas territories.
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Staff at Culdrose medical centre advised teams on how to correctly put on and take off masks, aprons and gloves to avoid contamination during their Covid-19 duties. They also produced training videos on these safety procedures to avoid unnecessary social contact as they continue their briefings.
Cdr Martin Barlow, the air station’s Executive Officer, said: “As an air station, we have taken steps to prepare our personnel to meet any challenge required of them.
“As always, the Royal Navy is ready to respond to whatever is required of us, totally reliable in a time of crisis and utterly committed to everything that we do.”
Sailors and dockyard workers in Plymouth are working around the clock to meet the unprecedented demand for protective face masks from the NHS.
They have joined a city-wide effort involving the university, colleges, Plymouth Science Park and individual tech enthusiasts, harnessing 3D printing technology to produce components for face shields.
Specialist workshops with 3D printers in Devonport Dockyard are running non-stop to produce the much-needed equipment as part of the military response to the pandemic.
The Royal Naval Reserve maintains a transportable workshop with three 3D printers, introduced last year and designed to support the Fleet’s operations around the globe.
For more than a fortnight, engineers CPO Gareth Chilcott and LET Ben ‘Axel’ Foley – who work in the dockyard for defence firm Babcock Marine by day and volunteer as reservists with Plymouth unit HMS Vivid in their spare time – have been producing face visor headbands for the masks.
“During this unprecedented time we really feel that the whole country is pulling together and we all owe great gratitude to all NHS and care workers and it’s been a privilege to be able to do our little bit,” said Ben.
“We may only be able to manufacture relatively small quantities compared to others within the consortium, but looking at the bigger picture I think every single face shield that is delivered will make a difference.”
Having overcome a number of challenges – including how to prevent the small workshop overheating as the machines are running continuously – they hope to produce around 100 headbands by the weekend.
Other workshops – at the RN Defiance engineering complex and Babcock Marine sites – are also generating parts across the base.
Gareth added: “To be asked to use this facility to produce something of great importance during this unprecedented time has been a great honour.”
Once printed, the parts are assembled with components produced elsewhere in Plymouth by Babcock to make a complete face shield, which is then delivered to the NHS.
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